COVID Leadership Lessons from the POD

Arriving at the gigantic, empty mall parking lot felt unsettling and unfamiliar.

Yet I knew the day ahead would get me grounded in the Loudoun County COVID POD (Point of Distribution) process, and the power of community service during a crisis.

This is how my adventures as a novice Volunteer Medical Corps (VMC) member began. One week ago, I reported for my first day of work at the POD.

The experience wasn’t just inspiring. It was a crash course on leading teams and servicing “customers.”

If you agree that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, you’ll find these lessons from the POD valuable:

1) Don’t rely on resumes to build your team. Calm, confident communicators are priceless and often rare. The VMC consists mostly of a hodgepodge of highly educated retirees with time on their hands. These volunteers selflessly offer their time as traffic coordinators, receptionists, setup crews and greeters. In lieu of playing tennis, road tripping or golfing, they chose to serve others and be part of the national movement to attain herd immunity.

There’s Shawn, a retired air traffic controller. He served as an onsite manager during my shift. He exuded a warm, calm demeanor. I trusted him immediately. Other volunteers deferred to him, and followed him around the hollowed out, two-story converted Nordstrom.

Conversely, “Joe,” a full-time county employee with decades of logistics experience, created more confusion than calm, and I had to turn to volunteers to learn the site flow role. Joe’s resume was not at all a reflection of his capability. Sadly, his agency did not screen nor prepare him adequately for his role.

2. Match your performance to your promise. The facility medical coordinator sent me an email to confirm my job assignment the prior evening. She reassured all the new volunteers that we would be vaccinated on the first day of our assignments. That made sense, considering we expected 3000 people per day.

The 560-word email (yes, I counted it) was daunting and included three different file attachments, so I scanned it. Way at the bottom, the message said “we are no longer vaccinating volunteers at the POD during their shift. Instead, staff will receive an invitation to VAMS at the end of the day to schedule their own appointment at a later time.”

Although I am not a member of the most vulnerable vaccine candidates, this disappointed me. With no explanation, the additional volunteer benefit disappeared.

Don’t make a promise you can’t keep, especially with new team members. Morale and trust are too important.

3. Over-communicate, even when you’re tired of hearing yourself. I arrived at the POD 90 minutes prior to the opening. Shawn said that I should wait briefly for the volunteer orientation. It never happened.

Another supervisor just greeted me, pointed to the escalators, and said “Did you read the email? Good. Then please plan to welcome people at the top of the escalator and show them where to go when we open the doors.”

Extra guidance, combined with an overview of the anticipated people traffic flow, would have calmed me, and prepared me for the onslaught of daily visitors. Once again, I relied on the sharp volunteers to answer the basic questions.

4. Configure now for future growth. I need to give the POD program designers credit. They anticipated big crowds, which soared from 3000 people to 4500 per day within just one week. They designed the second floor for additional vaccination stations. This involved coordination with the CDC, the county health department, and the online scheduling systems. No small feat.

Some of my CMO and CEO clients are doing the same. They are fully aware that we are about to experience an economic boom. They are hiring and cross training their teams now—not in the middle of the boom.

We will never experience this leadership moment again in our lifetimes (or so we hope). It warms my heart to see local citizens banding together to fight this invisible enemy. I also realize that aligning temporary or makeshift teams takes patience and skill.

In the new hybrid way of working and collaborating, we need to become adept at building and nurturing ad-hoc PODs. Seek out your own team of Shawn’s. We need them to help us battle the next pandemic that may haunt us for years to come: the after effects of isolation and grief.

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